The Church taught that the Creator granted to the people the use of aether to work wonders in his name, and to do battle against the forces of the Void. But the Voidspawn adapted, learning to take on human form. To detect and defeat them, the Church granted to a select few who kept the Covenant a license to study and employ the powers of the Void against the demons that lurked within in. From that came the Voidguard. And the Voidguard had many tricks up its sleeve.
The Technical Services laboratory was deep underground, protected by multiple layers of security and automated weapon turrets. Past a platoon of guards, past a crew of ever-worrying technicians, past a chamber warded by a paling-stone, Beringer entered the heart of the Research and Analysis Wing.
White-coated civilians scurried back and forth, arranging and calibrating equipment. Enforcers stood nearby, checking arcs of fire. In the middle of the chamber, tethered to a stake in the heart of a giant glyph, a goat bleated softly. Beringer beheld the proceedings, keeping his face a stony mask.
“We are live,” the head technician called. “Establish the paling.”
The glyph glowed, channeling the power of a paling-stone buried into the floor. Translucent walls of light emerged from the floor, creating a circle within a triangle within a triangle. The goat startled and tried to flee, but its chain held it tight.
“Paling established,” a techie reported.
“Begin the Calling.”
Unseen speakers filled the room with a long, low beat. It snaked into Beringer’s mind, warping his brain. The Enforcers stiffened, making last-minute adjustments. Black lines traced across the floor, bounded by the circle. The goat panicked, tried to leap away, but the chain held fast. Beringer gritted his teeth, saw a formless black mass grow from the middle of the glyph. A foul stench filled the air.
The Void-mass warped and twisted, forming a giant ball of tentacles dripping dark ichor. Tiny mouths and suckers emerged from the ends of the tentacles. They loomed above the goat, poking and prodding at it. The goat cried out and dashed away. It managed to take two steps before a bundle of tentacles wrapped around its legs, immobilizing it. The remaining tentacles fell upon the goat.
The slithering, slimy mass issued a wall of noise: of teeth tearing meat and skin, of acids dissolving vital flesh, of bones cracking and snapping, interrupted by desperate bleats and high-pitched baas, weakening with every moment, until all that remained were a few final smacks.
From within the mass, dozens of eyeballs, all mismatched, opened.
“Ah. Fresh meat!” the Voidspawn said. “It has been too long.”
The Greater Demon spoke in a low, liquid rumble that reminded Beringer of lava oozing against granite.
“Nyargul, I trust it was to your satisfaction,” Beringer said.
“Very much so. And who might you be?”
“You can call me Voidguard.”
The demon uttered a very human-sounding humph. “You Voidguards never give me your real names.”
“And why should we? By ancient contract, fresh meat and blood is more than adequate.”
“Of course, of course. Still, I do not wish to think of you solely as ‘Voidguard’.”
Beringer twitched, thinking of the witch. Trusting her was a gamble, but his gut suggested he needed allies more than enemies.
“Nevertheless, it is enough. I have come to do business with you.”
The Unmaker may lead the Voidspawn, but he did not command the respect of all the creatures of the Void. Some factions were hostile to his rule. Others preferred to stay independent. A vanishing few even deigned to work with humans. As equals.
“Very well, Voidguard of the blue eyes. What do you wish to know?”
“I have retrieved a sample of Void-mass. You will find it attached to the stake. I would like to know what you can tell me about it.”
The sample bag was secured to the stake with double-sided tape. The Greater Demon delicately removed it, quickly tore the bag open, and gobbled down the Void-matter.
“You wish me to betray to you the secrets of my brethren?”
“As you have done for us so many times before.”
Nyargul laughed. “Of course. What do you want to know of him?”
“What is his name?”
“You do not have the necessary organs to process his true name, and he changes his public name every time he emerges from the Void. Among the Dwellers of the Void he is called the Archon of Decay. That is sufficient for our purposes, I trust?”
“Very well. What can you tell me about him?”
“He is a necrophage. He thrives where is corruption and rot, death and decay. He feeds on it, and if he gains enough strength in your world he can create vessels for his retinue of followers. You know them as ghouls, wights and the Defiled.”
“What is he weak against?”
“He is weak against the sun and takes pains to hide from it. Places of order and healing undo him, and so he keeps away from them. Also, like the rest of our kind, he cannot go to places protected by your palings.”
Beringer recoiled. “He and his followers attacked a church. They overwhelmed the paling.”
The Greater demon launched a flurry of blows against the inner paling. The Enforcers stood to, aiming their weapons at him. The Voidspawn’s tentacles bounced off impotently.
“See this?” Nyargul continued. “Your palings keep us out. But for necrophages, when exposed to a paling they burn as though they were in the presence of the Light of the Creator. They cannot penetrate a paling.”
“I’ve seen the bodies. They were demons’ work.”
“Are you sure you have the right demon?”
Beringer frowned. “He’s the only lead I have. If he didn’t do it, he might know who did.”
Wet slopping sounds slushed forth. The demon was laughing.
“Well, let us say he did it. The only way he could have done so was for a human accomplice to remove the paling-stone beforehand.”
“What about a necropolis? Could he set up shop in one?”
“Yes. Such a place is ideal for him. If it were not protected by a paling-stone. Or, again, if someone removed the paling-stone.”
“Does he do business with humans?”
Nyargul shrugged. “You must understand, he is part of the Swarmush Faction. They seek to curry favor with the Dunastes, what you call the Un—”
“Don’t say his name!” Beringer shouted.
Around him, the Enforcers traced the Hexagram. The technicians glanced around nervously. Nyargul laughed.
“So be it. The Dunastes seeks to transmute your kind so you may become part of the Void. If the Archon of Decay were to contract with a human, he would do so to further the Dunastes’ agenda.”
“Would he work with a witch? With the Followers of the Tradition?”
“The Tradition considers him one of the Fallen, and forbids bargaining with him. The Archon of Decay prefers to traffick with sociopaths with delusions of grandeur. He likes to build them up and grant them power for a while. When they grow fat with arrogance at the height of their glory, he sets up their downfall. When the contractor faces his end, the Archon will be there to drag him into the Void to serve him forever.”
“Is the Archon of Decay back in the Void?”
“No. I cannot sense him here. He must still be in your realm.”
“I wounded him in our last encounter. He must be trying to recover from his injuries and I have sealed off the necropolis with a paling-stone. Where else would he go?”
“You are a formidable one, Voidguard of the blue eyes. But beware, it might simply be a plot to lure you into an ambush. It is one of his favorite tactics. Are you certain you wish to find him?”
“I have my duty.”
There was a sound like rock rubbing against rock, lubricated by thick slime. “A man of honor. You amuse me. And so I will tell you that he is drawn to places of corruption. Not necessarily physical. Mental, emotional, spiritual fatigue and decay. Places where the spark of the Creator is extinguished, where people exist but do not live. There he finds people seeking false hope, and ensnares him.”
“The slums, then?”
“That is your word for it, yes.”
“How shall I find him? Does he have any preferred hideaways?”
The demon laughed, louder than before. “You have crossed swords with him, have you not? Surely you recall the taste of his essence.”
“I would like to find him before running into him.”
This time Nyargul’s laughter roiled through the room like an oily tide.
“I do not recall cracking a joke,” Beringer said.
“You have been marked by the Void, and Voidspawn know their own. Voidguard of the blue eyes, you do not find Simon. Simon finds you.”
“You said he’s weak in the day. I can hunt him now.”
“It is pointless. So long as the sun is up he seals himself away into a pocket dimension, leaving no trace of himself behind. Your only hope of finding him is to wait for nightfall, when he emerges and lets his essence leak into the world.”
“Then I suppose I must be ready for him.”
“If you can.”
“Thank you for your assistance, Nyargul. It has been most helpful. You may return to the Void with our blessings.”
“Very well. And do your best to stay on this side of the Divide. I do not care to lose such a promising source of amusement.”
The demon contracted, shrinking into a ball. The tentacles softened, drooped, melting into the sphere. Then it flattened, turning into an impossible two-dimensional shape. It contracted again, imploding into a single infinitely dark spot of the Void. A moment later, it was gone.
“Connection complete,” the head tech murmured.
“Connection logged,” the assistant said.
Beringer sighed. As he left, he dug his hands into his pockets. He would have to run headlong into the maws of the Void. Ideally he would locate Simon’s nest, but he had to count on a demonic ambush. The Voidspawn had ways of knowing things that humans did not. And Beringer didn’t think de Avaram would provide more than material support. He hadn’t even seen a fellow Voidguard in the building.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to do this alone.
“Still in the city?” Beringer asked.
“So eager to drive me out?”
“I figured you’ll be hunting for leads on your own.”
Kentaris sighed. Got up from her couch and looked out the window into the City Eternal. It was the first time she’d stood for hours. Teraliel hadn’t checked in yet, and already the sun was setting.
“And if I were?”
“We could meet and swap notes. Track the demon together.”
“With a bunch of Voidguard or Enforcers in tow.”
Now it was his turn to sigh. “I wish. I’ve been thrown to the wolves here.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know the High Synod is meeting next week. Everybody is assigned on one security detail or another. I’m the only one tracking the target.”
“A Greater Demon in the heart of the Holy City and your higher-ups don’t care? Do you expect me to believe that?”
“Like I said, thrown to the wolves. So are you, by the way.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re still in Amarantopolis. That means you’re going to proceed with your mission.”
“I have to.”
“I…” What could she say? Honor? Duty? That she had to avenge her coven? None of them felt right on her tongue, but one. “I have a job. Just like you.”
Beringer chuckled. “And I thought I was the crazy one. Look, you know what the odds are for people who take on a Greater Demon? Especially non-Voidguard? We need to work together here.”
“One more sword isn’t going to help.”
“One more pair of eyes, you mean.” He paused. “We are not going to fight the bastard if we have to. The target retreated somewhere inside the city. He’s healing up from the fight. We find him, we mark the place and I call in the cavalry. They’ll handle the heavy lifting.”
“And if your bosses aren’t going to help out?”
“We wait for morning. Surround his hideaway with mines and allies. When he comes out…”
“You in this?”
She sucked in a deep breath. “Yeah.”
“Great. There’s a greasy spoon called Isadora’s Cafe down on the corner of 18th and Kastalias. We’ll meet there in a half hour.”
He snorted. “C’mon, your safe house is just twenty minutes from there.”
“What? How did you—”
“You left your crystal on. And I have a tracker.”
“None of my colleagues know where you’re at, and I’m not inclined to share. If you want to meet me, that is.”
“Damn you.” She sighed. “Fine.”
“Excellent. So, half hour from now. Unless you need to touch up your makeup.”
“Oi. What do you mean—”
“I’m not joking. Dress in your shabbiest clothing. Or your tartiest. And be prepared for a long walk. Where we’re going, that’s going to be the height of fashion and we need to blend in.”
“Do you always take girls to such classy places?”
“Only the naughty ones.”
If this story looks familiar, it’s the original concept of my Covenant Chronicles series. To see how it really turned out, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.
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